Mchinji is a small district located 12 kilometres (km) from the Zambian border and 109 km from Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi.
In every sense, Mchinji is a beehive of activity ranging from cross-border trade to agriculture, some of which impact directly on the welfare of girls and women.
Because of this, it is no wonder that most young girls in the district fall prey to older rich men who dupe them into child marriages.
These child marriages not only shutter their education but also compromise the girls’ future dreams of making it big in life.
However, Mtanga Girls’ Club chairperson Fatima Alli of Kochilira Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Zulu in Mchinji says entrepreneurship is helping girls and young women who were rescued from early marriages to restore their hope and find a purpose in life.
“When girls and young women who were once married but were rescued engage in small-scale businesses, they can avoid falling back into temptations of getting pregnant or going back to their marriages,” she says.
The girls’ club is run as part of the Marriage No Child’s Play Project which Youth Net and Counselling (Yoneco) is implementing in Mchinji and Mangochi districts.
“As a girls’ club, we have managed to rescue 22 girls from child marriages. Twenty of those are going to school while two are doing small-scale businesses to sustain their livelihoods, thanks to the project,” Alli adds.
Esther Stalicor, secretary for Mdzomba Girls’ Club in the same district, says they are always alert looking for incidences of child marriages in their villages and once established, they link up with the police and social welfare officers to stop or end the marriage process.
“I am a living example of what entrepreneurship can do. The project empowered girls rescued from marriages with financial management and business skills that have helped some of the girls to excel in their businesses,” she says.
Stalicor observes that deprivation usually entices young women back into unsafe relationships, resulting in pregnancy because their right to negotiate for safer sex is overpowered by their materialistic personal needs accruing from parental indifference.
Yoneco project officer Anderson Chikalipo says apart from strengthening child protection and support systems, the Marriage No Child’s Play project is also empowering young women and teen mothers with business acumen to reduce child marriages.
“Ending child marriages is essential to ensuring that girls and boys reach their full potential by exercising their fundamental human rights.
“Although both girls and boys fall prey to child marriages, girls are disproportionately affected due to cultural and economic reasons,” he says.
Chikalipo says child marriage has multidimensional social, economic and psychological ramifications on the welfare of young girls.
Yoneco, from January to June 2018, rescued 82 girls from child marriages in Mchinji, and 37 went back to school. The rest were referred to social welfare for expert intervention and financial institutions for business start-up capital in the form of soft loans, according to Chikalipo.
Yoneco executive director McBain Mkandawire says poverty, cultural and religious beliefs and above all gender inequality are the root cause of child marriages in Malawi.
“In rural setting, parents marry off their children to rich older men when they see that they are becoming a burden to their finances. Their thinking is that the girl’s husband will provide for her and their needs,” he says.
Mkandawire adds that due to lack of support towards education, adolescent girls resort to dropping out of school altogether and end up as child brides or sex workers.
He adds: “But when they are taken out of the marriages, they need to be supported with business skills to cushion them from economic dependence.”
According to Mkandawire, Yoneco is implementing the project to reduce child marriages and their adverse effects on girls and young women besides garnering collective supportive action against the vice.
The five-year project is funded by the Dutch Government through Simavi, an independent international non-profit organisation working in the health sector. n